How Long Does It Usually Take to Cremate a Body for a Funeral?

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Whether you’re considering cremation for yourself after you pass away, or you’re working through the death of a family member, you might be interested in how long the cremation process takes. Unfortunately, the answer to that question isn’t as cut-and-dried as it might seem. 

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The actual cremation process typically takes three to four hours. But that doesn’t mean it takes just four hours to receive your loved one’s cremains. It can take anywhere from four to 15 days from the time of death to the completion of the cremation. An average cremation time frame is about ten business days

So if the process takes just a few hours, why does it take so long to get a loved one’s cremains back? Below, we’ll detail the cremation process, including each of the elements that affect how long it takes to get cremated remains back following the cremation process. 

What Plays a Role in How Long It Takes to Get Cremains Back?

Many people would like to better understand the cremation process and why it can take upwards of 15 days to complete. 

You might want to understand what your family member’s body is going through throughout the process. Or you might want to know what your family can expect during your own cremation after you pass away. 

No matter what your reason for learning more about how cremation works, it’s well worth diving into the details. Below are the various elements that impact how long it takes to get a loved one’s cremains back. 

Funeral homes and crematoriums

The first element that can affect how long the cremation process takes overall is whether you work with a crematorium directly or with a funeral home. 

Most people will work with a funeral home as a sort of middle man. The funeral home receives your loved one’s body, keeps it in cold storage for as long as it takes to complete the necessary paperwork, and helps you through the whole process. They might also have urns, containers, and other ashes for storing your loved one’s ashes. And if you’re holding a funeral or memorial, you can use the very same funeral home as the venue. 

But working with a funeral home also means there are more schedules to juggle, as well as more transportation that needs to take place. And this can add anywhere from a few hours to a few days to the cremation process. 

Death certificate

Before the actual cremation process can begin, the facility has to file the proper paperwork. One of the most important pieces of paper is the death certificate

To complete the death certificate, the funeral home or crematorium reaches out to the doctor of the deceased. Then, the doctor has a period of time (typically 72 hours) to file the certificate with the state’s health department. 

In the state of California, for example, the death certificate needs to be filed electronically with the government before cremation begins. And that process usually takes a few days, at least. 

After a doctor signs the death certificate, a medical examiner is often notified of the intent to cremate. Once the medical examiner receives that notification, they can take up to 48 business hours to approve the cremation request. 

Authorization

While the health department and your loved one’s doctor are processing the death certificate, the crematorium will also work with you to get the proper cremation authorization. 

This process, again, depends on the state where you live. But in California, for example, the right to make cremation arrangements belongs to the agent listed as Power of Attorney for Healthcare. If there’s no Power of Attorney, authorization goes to the spouse. And if there’s no living spouse, the majority of surviving children receive the right to authorize cremation. 

So if you’re going through the process of having a loved one cremated, you’ll need to present paperwork listing you as the authorized agent. You can save time by keeping that type of paperwork on-hand and well-organized. But if you have to track it down, or go through another process to obtain authorization, that can add days or even weeks to the cremation time frame. 

Legal waiting periods

Usually, getting all that paperwork out of the way will delay the cremation at least a few days. But if you happen to get it all done in a shorter period of time, you might still have to wait to complete the cremation process. 

That’s because states create their own laws regarding cremation, and some of them require you to wait a standard period of time before beginning the physical cremation. 

At the same time, some states require you to complete the cremation process within a set time frame. For example, Minnesota requires that cremation takes place within 72 hours, or within six days if the body is in refrigerated storage. 

Cremation and processing

Finally, after all of the paperwork is signed and filed, and you’ve waited an appropriate amount of time based on your state’s laws, the crematory can begin the physical process of cremation. 

The amount of time the physical cremation process takes depends on a few factors, like the size of the body, the cremation casket material, and whether you choose traditional or alkaline hydrolysis (flameless) cremation. But on average, the actual cremation takes between an hour and a half and three hours. 

After that, the cremains cool for a while, and then the crematory processes remaining bone fragments. This adds another hour to two hours to the total cremation processing time. 

Weekends and holidays

The last element is one that affects nearly every business: weekends and holidays. Funeral homes and cremation facilities can’t operate around the clock, and they typically close down over the weekend. 

And if your loved one passes away near a holiday, the cremation process can take longer. The facility’s employees are likely at home, enjoying some well-deserved time off with their own families and friends. 

Some crematories offer weekend cremation services, but most do not. And those that do often charge a premium for using their staff and facilities on weekends or holidays. 

This element is why, when we mentioned the average time frame for cremation, we noted the time frame in “business days.” 

ยป MORE: Grief is a form of remembrance. This complete post-loss checklist is your guide to honoring their legacy.

 

How Are Cremated Ashes Usually Returned to the Family?

The way you receive a loved one’s ashes back is often a matter of personal preference. A funeral home or crematory usually gives the family an opportunity to select or purchase an urn or container for the ashes ahead of the cremation. You could also purchase an urn elsewhere and bring it to the funeral home or crematory for use.

If you haven’t selected a container in advance of the cremation, the funeral home or crematorium typically returns the ashes in a plastic bag enclosed in a cardboard box. If you receive the ashes this way, you can then carefully transfer the plastic bag to another urn or container. You could even transfer some of the ashes to cremation jewelry

Time Frame for Cremation vs. Burial

Many people choose cremation, either for themselves or a loved one, as a lower-cost alternative to a costly burial process. After all, the cost of cremation can be as little as a third of what burial costs. 

But when it comes to time frame, cremation isn’t always a speedier option. While burial typically takes around two weeks to complete if you opt for a traditional funeral, cremation takes around the same amount of time. 

So when you’re choosing between burial and cremation, you’ll likely base your decision on other factors, like cost and personal and spiritual beliefs, rather than the time it takes to complete. 

If you're looking for more information on cremation, read our guide on buying the best urns and the difference between cremation and burial.


Sources

  1. “How long does the entire cremation process take?” National Cremation. https://www.nationalcremation.com/ask-a-funeral-director/how-long-does-the-entire-cremation-process-take#:~:text=Depending%20on%20location%2C%20the%20cremation,takes%20another%201%2D2%20hours.

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